Monster X-ray laser offers glimpse into nano-world

The world’s most powerful X-ray laser opened Friday in Germany, promising to shed new light onto very small things by letting scientists penetrate the inner workings of atoms, viruses and chemical reactions. The mega-project generates extremely intense laser flashes, at a mind-boggling rate of 27,000 per second, inside a 3.4-kilometre (2.1-mile) tunnel below the northern city of Hamburg.

Hailed as one of Europe’s most cutting-edge research projects, the European XFEL, hidden 38 metres (125 feet) below corn fields and residential areas, was opened after eight years’ construction at a ribbon-cutting ceremony with science and technology ministers from the 11 countries involved.

At the heart of the 1.5-billion-euro ($1.7 billion) facility is the ultrafast X-ray laser strobe light, which will allow researchers for the first time to look deep inside matter and take snapshots and “molecular movies”.

“We can look deep into the micro-world, the nano-world, the world of atoms and molecules, and study things we didn’t previously know, for example what molecules do in a chemical reaction,” said Johanna Wanka, Germany’s education and research minister.

Teams from around the world will be able to, for instance, map the atomic details of viruses, take 3-D images of the molecular make-up of cells or film chemical reactions as they happen.

The huge laser is “like a camera and a microscope that will make it possible to see more tiny details and processes in the nano-world than ever before,” XFEL managing director Robert Feidenhans’l told AFP.

He said that so far, scientists know many chemical and biological processes only by their outcomes—like a football fan reading the score of a match he missed.

“Now you can see the game and you can analyse it … so next time you can win,” Feidenhans’l said. “The game could be a chemical process, a biological process, it could be how you get energy from sunlight. The principle is the same: you want to see the game.” Source: Monster X-ray laser offers glimpse into nano-world (Update)

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